Portraits of Bravery in the Service of Great Causes


By Gordon Brown

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In the tradition of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s fascinating collection of inspirational leaders is destined to become a staple of every politically conscious reader’s library as his already-significant profile grows exponentially around the world.

The prime minister explores the lives of eight outstanding twentieth-century figures to uncover why some men and women make difficult decisions and do the right thing when easier and far less dangerous alternatives are open to them. Those profiled range from icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to lesser-known figures such as Edith Cavell, who nursed the wounded of World War I in Belgium and helped Allied soldiers escape, and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to Nazi Germany from New York to lead the Christian opposition against Hitler’s regime. Bringing his personal reflections to these intimate portraits, Brown illuminates a common thread of inspiring courage in every one of these eight heroes and, in doing so, introduces us to his own inspiring values.



Maxton The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution (co-author)

Scotland: The Real Divide (ed.)

Where There Is Greed: Margaret Thatcher

and the Betrayal of Britain's Future

John Smith: Life and Soul of the Party (ed.)

Values, Visions and Voices: An Anthology of Socialism (ed.)

Speeches 1997–2006

Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches 1997–2006

In memory of Jennifer

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.



In researching this book I have had the privilege of talking to Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel. I have also had the privilege of talking some years ago to Professor Michael Aris, the late husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. Fortunately, Cathy Koester was able to interview Cicely Saunders at length shortly before her death in 2005. And Cathy has met and talked in depth to Ernest Cromwell, a parishioner of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Raoul Wallenberg's half-sister Nina Lagergren. Cathy and I have also talked to Nelson Mandela's lawyer, Joel—now Lord—Joffe. Before writing my chapter on Robert F. Kennedy I was fortunate enough to visit Hyannisport and, there and in Washington and London, talk to Senator Edward Kennedy as well as other members of the Kennedy family. To all of them I am grateful.

I am particularly indebted to Cathy Koester for her meticulous research and advice, for tracking down the many quotations and references used in the book and for creating the bibliography, and for her insights into the lives of the characters I have studied.

Colin Currie has kept faith with the project, has advised, supported, and added to it with his breadth of literary and historical knowledge, and I am grateful for all his suggestions and observations as we worked on shaping the material.

I have used many secondary sources, some great studies of the individuals I have portrayed, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to these authors. At all points I have tried to acknowledge their work, and if I have failed to do so in any area I apologize.

I am grateful to Liz Calder of Bloomsbury, who first encouraged me to do this book, and to my editor, Bill Swainson, and the team at Bloomsbury, who have supported, assisted, and encouraged me throughout.

There are many reasons why books are written. This started as an offer to play my part in raising money for the Jennifer Brown Research Fund, and I have been inspired to use my summer holidays to complete the work by the encouragement and, most of all, the love of Sarah and our two boys, John and Fraser.


As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by men and women of courage. Stories of people who took brave decisions in the service of great causes enthralled me, especially when more comfortable and far less dangerous alternatives were open to them.

But what separates these people of courage from the rest of us and makes their lives and achievements so remarkable is that they were prepared to endure great sacrifices and persist, some of them for many years, against the odds and in the face of the greatest adversity. They are for us exemplars and icons, at once daunting and cherished. Their stories live on and inspire us.

They chose to act when others stood by, and made sacrifices that were worthwhile and noble. Social disapproval, danger, physical pain, and even the risk of death mattered far less to them than personal belief and moral purpose. Quite simply, they seemed to be driven and sustained by higher ideals.

The kind of courage that fascinated me went beyond physical bravery, though almost always it did involve that admirable quality. It was not just risk-taking, and definitely not risk-taking in a doubtful cause. Here was altruistic courage: sacrifice and determination for a higher purpose; the courage that endures and prevails, and eventually dignifies all humanity. It was an expression of both strength of character and strength of belief.

In preparing to write this book I read widely about such heroism and learned much: sudden deeds of near-incredible valor by combat soldiers, some being recognized with a Victoria Cross; the cool, selfless courage demanded of bomb-disposal officers almost routinely, as part of their daily task; the selfless heroism of individuals, such as the passengers who took on the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93; and the high courage displayed and the constant dangers and awful sacrifices endured by those who fought more covertly in Europe and Asia as members of the Special Operations Executive.

Hugh Seagrim served with the SOE in Burma from early 1943, and was awarded the George Cross posthumously. His remarkable story was summarized in the "Action for which commended," which tells how an SOE party was ambushed, with only Seagrim and a Burmese colleague escaping, how the subsequent Japanese manhunt involved brutal reprisals against the Karen hill people, and how Seagrim agreed to surrender simply to end the torture and the killing of the people who had sheltered him. When, with eight companions, he was sentenced to death, he argued that he alone should die since the rest were only obeying his orders. He failed in this, but comforted and sustained his men as they faced death and was steadfast to the end, which came in September 1944 in Rangoon.

All these heroes—civilians, soldiers, and secret agents, called in sudden and unforeseeable circumstances to acts of bravery and even heroism—command our highest admiration and gratitude; already the wars and uncertainties of our still young century show these qualities are needed still, and are still there when they are needed.

Courage has fascinated me for many years now. I remember being given, when I was ten, an encyclopedia of twentieth-century history. In it were recorded great deeds: the daring of Shackleton, the sheer determination and inspired improvisation that took his expedition across the Antarctic; the bravery and ill-fated amateurism of the Mallory and Irvine attempt on Everest in 1924; Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1912, and Captain Oates and his last sacrifice. All of them I admired, but the page that I turned to again and again was the one that surprised me most: the story—and picture— of Nurse Edith Cavell. It made a deep impression on me.

Cavell, the daughter of a Norfolk vicar, was working in Brussels at the start of the First World War. She could have left but chose to stay, a British national in a country first threatened, then overrun by German forces. Behind enemy lines, she set up secret routes home for escaping Allied prisoners but was eventually arrested, tried by court martial, and executed. She had continued amid growing danger to tend the wounded and help prisoners on their way to freedom. She could have chosen not to, or she could have got away herself, but she did neither. She faced her trial and execution with dignity, courage, and the words: "I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

Many years later, and having read and seen much more of it, I am still in awe of that kind of courage—and that is how I came to write this book.

Of the people whose lives I have written about, the only one I have met and been fortunate enough to get to know is Nelson Mandela. Over a series of meetings I began to learn something of the nature, wisdom, and courage of one of the greatest men of any century.

As I got to know him, the concept of courage—first glimpsed almost fifty years ago and elaborated on through my reading of history and a life in politics—came wonderfully alive in this wise and genial grandfather, now in his late eighties: a man who had faced death for his beliefs, survived an imprisonment that came to symbolize the injustice suffered by his people, and endured it to emerge to freedom and put an end to that injustice.

His long and often lonely struggle against apartheid, his defiance at his trial, his quiet dignity and growing authority even when still imprisoned, his ultimate vindication and his magnanimity—in office and retirement—amount to a towering record of courage in the best of causes: an achievement so great that it has allowed us to forget how catastrophically apartheid might have ended had it not been for his example, his work, and his presence. I do not attempt to conceal my affection, indeed my reverence, for Nelson Mandela. Meeting him and his wife, Graça Machel—an unbelievably courageous woman—inspired me to write this book, and readers will, I hope, understand why the chapter about him has proved to be the longest.

I first came to know of Aung San Suu Kyi—the only other contemporary I write about in this book—when I met her husband, Professor Michael Aris, at a Labour Party conference in the early 1990s. I was aware of her struggle for human rights in Burma. What I did not know was the full human story behind what she did. Michael Aris told me he had not seen his wife for years, that even phone calls were becoming increasingly difficult, and that she had not seen her children for many years either.

Growing up in Burma after the Second World War, Aung San Suu Kyi admired her father's leadership in the struggle against Japanese occupation and his political and military achievements. She was abroad when her country's democracy was threatened by military dictatorship, but chose to return. As the military grip on Burma tightened, she turned down many opportunities to leave and rejoin her family, thus gradually acquiring the status of a political leader and her country's best hope for a better future. A Nobel laureate now, and still under house arrest after years of uncertainty, privation, bereavement, and loss of family, she remains to this day the elected leader of her country—and the greatest and noblest symbol of the democratic aspirations of her people.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead by a racist assassin in 1968. A scholarly third- generation Baptist minister, he resisted family pressures to succeed his father in a prestigious Atlanta parish and instead took up a pastoral charge in Montgomery, Alabama. He had hoped to finish his doctoral thesis and write, but as the Rosa Parks–inspired Montgomery Bus Boycott sprang up, it was he—the charismatic young local pastor—who was called to a leadership role.

King was a reluctant leader, and courage was thrust upon him. He and his family faced death threats right from the start, but over the following thirteen years his leadership of the civil rights movement and his total commitment to non-violence succeeded in trans-forming the United States—freeing black Americans from the humiliation, injustice, and political exclusion of segregation. "The end we seek," he said, "is a society at peace with itself," and he knew that non-violence was the only possible means to that end.

It was his courageous choice of non-violent protest—which alienated him from blacks while not immediately endearing him to whites—that singled him out from other black leaders, but the courage and wisdom of that choice eventually prevailed. When, after centuries of entrenched injustice, legislation to establish civil rights for American blacks was passed in 1965, the single most important reason it succeeded was that it enjoyed the support of whites as well as blacks.

Despite pressure and threats from both white supremacists and Black Power activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., had patiently created— through organization, oratory, and strategic vision—a majority, white and black, that ultimately prevailed. Tragically, he died for his cause, but bequeathed to the United States a better, fairer society.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis just days before the end of the Second World War, took on a different kind of evil. As a young pastor and theologian in 1930s Germany, he abhorred anti-Semitism and opposed it when all too few of his colleagues wished or dared to. His Christianity was not theirs, and his moral universe was not corrupted by racism: his respect for all human beings was absolute. He left Germany and returned, and then left and returned again at the most dangerous time to do so, gradually realizing that to live out his Christian faith he must stay in his homeland and risk his life. As the ultimate evil and violence of fascism closed in on him, he showed courage that was truly saintly, as priest and inspiration to his fellow prisoners right to the end. His selfless courage and endurance kept a flame of moral principle alight and, in a sense, contributed to the birth of a new post-war Germany.

In the same dark years in Europe, Raoul Wallenberg, a businessman from Sweden, which was neutral in the war, worked under diplomatic cover in Hungary, abandoning a life of privilege and safety that he was under no pressure to give up. Instead Wallenberg used his energy, ingenuity, and charm to build an organization that provided impressive if dubious documentation that allowed over 100,000 of Hungary's Jews with notional "Swedish connections" to escape the Holocaust. As the war ended, he saved thousands more from Adolf Eichmann's death camps, before himself disappearing into a Soviet gulag, never to return.

I think of Robert F. Kennedy as the first modern political leader— prepared to break with old conventions and offer a wholly distinct message that transcended both the old right and the old left. Of course, we think of his courage in risking his life in the full knowledge of his brother's and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, assassinations, and in thinking boldly about the future. When he broke with President Johnson on Vietnam he did so on ethical grounds, and when he broke with established Democratic thinking on poverty and urban renewal, he put forward a wholly different view of the responsible and empowered citizen and also a wholly different view of responsive and enabling government.

Cicely Saunders, who died in 2005 at the age of eighty-seven, is probably the least known of those I write about. Yet in her life she did more than anyone to come to terms with the greatest mystery of all: death. I believe she should be better known, because her long, courageous struggle transformed the way the dying are cared for, not only in Britain but across the world. After a sad childhood, she trained successively as a nurse, social worker, and doctor because she saw how much dying patients suffered—physically and spiritually—as a result of being written off as "failed cases," and she saw also how much had to be done to ease that suffering. She fought entrenched professional ignorance and indifference to the needs of the dying, but by the end of her long life had triumphed. I have chosen her because, through the hospice movement and the new medical specialty of palliative care, Cicely Saunders's life of service succeeded in changing attitudes, generating important new knowledge. In changing our view of death she has changed our view of life itself.

I believe the lives I have briefly summarized above and treat in more detail in subsequent chapters tell us much about courage: what it is, how it manifests itself, and what a huge difference it can make in the most challenging and threatening of circumstances. The achievements of Edith Cavell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Cicely Saunders, and Aung San Suu Kyi are great and lasting, and very different. However, I believe that by attempting to understand more about the nature of that courage we can draw some lessons of real and enduring value, and I will return to that in the conclusion of this book.

But first their stories, which are about courage and much more.

Eight people emerge with their human fallibilities, their doubts and hesitations, the choices they faced and how they faced them, yet all of them endured. The more I got to know about them the more fascinated I became, and the more I wanted to know, but within the limits of this series of short biographical essays I hope I can pass on to others something of the fascination courage held for me when I first learned about it at the age of ten—and how it can continue to transform our world today.


Edith Cavell

In every life there are moments when decisions taken set in train a sequence of events that ultimately seal a fate. Although most people who know anything about Edith Cavell know only about her fate and how she met it, the decisions she made at successive crossroads in her life show her already to have been a woman of great courage. At each testing time her sense of moral duty and her courage to act asserted themselves over fear, hesitation, concerns for her own safety, or any other consideration.

Edith Cavell's courage was not simply a matter of perseverance, of making the best of difficult circumstances from which she could not escape; nor was it born of an instinctive reaction to a dramatic and unexpected emergency. Edith Cavell had choices and options throughout her life. There were easier choices and safer options. But she consistently and consciously acted in accordance with a strong sense of duty—a dedication to relieving the suffering of and helping, to the best of her ability, those in their darkest hours. And in the end she paid with her life.

Were it not for the outbreak of war Edith Cavell would have probably been best remembered for her services to nursing and for her pioneering work in its development as a respected profession in Belgium. But in the midst of war, her nurse's devotion to helping the sick and injured expanded to caring for the hunted and endangered. Miss Cavell, matron of the Berkendael Institute in Brussels, became Edith Cavell, rescuer and savior of scores of Allied soldiers behind enemy lines.

The road that led from the English country vicarage where Edith Cavell was born in 1865 to her place of execution in Belgium fifty years later was a long and indirect one. What might have become of her, and the two hundred or so people whose lives and liberty were indebted to her, if only she had taken one of the easier, safer, turns along the way? Or if she had stayed working as a governess for comfortably off English families instead of choosing to become a nurse; or pursued her vocation in English hospitals instead of accepting the challenge to foster professional nursing in Belgium; or even responded to her mother's urging to return to England when war broke out? What if she had simply chosen to turn away the first fugitive English soldiers who turned up at the door of her hospital on that first day? If only she had stopped there instead of offering—and then increasingly offering—her help to escaping troops long after German suspicions were aroused.

Each decision made at these crossroads tells something of Edith Cavell's remarkable character and steadfastness. Together and cumulatively, throughout her adulthood, they form a pattern of a truly great life: the pursuit of a nobler cause; danger coming before safety, hardship before comfort, isolation before the succor of strong family ties, and prison—and ultimately death—before liberty and life. Her courage at the moment of death, when she forgave her executioners, is perhaps the best-remembered aspect of her life, yet everything beforehand can be seen as a preparation for that one moment, her courage springing from a dignity and strength of character demonstrated again and again throughout a life lived in the service of her principles.

Edith Louisa Cavell was the eldest daughter of a Church of England vicar and grew up in the small Norfolk village of Swardeston. The testimonies of her siblings—two sisters—and neighbors reveal an early life framed by a sense of both duty and freedom. Edith Cavell's father is remembered as devout and committed in his ministry, her mother as generous and warm, and her family life as close and supportive. The vicarage was close to Swardeston Common, and the Cavell children spent a great deal of time outdoors on the common and in the vicarage garden.

As well as being at liberty to roam, the Cavell household diligently supported the vicar in his duties. Several biographers make reference to the family custom of taking a portion of their Sunday dinner to share with local families most in need. Edith would have been aware from the earliest days of her childhood that the world's abundance is not equally bestowed and that she had it within her means to soften some of the sharpness of other people's suffering through her own actions. Edith also taught at the local Sunday school and dutifully attended every one of her father's church services, a duty all too familiar to the families of the clergy. As an adolescent she wrote to a cousin: "I would love to have you with us, but not on a Sunday. It's too dreadful, Sunday school, Church services, family devotions morning and evening."

As the eldest child of the vicar, Edith bore witness to the suffering of the people in her father's parish when she accompanied her mother and father on pastoral visits to villagers in their times of need: birth and death, sickness, poverty, and grief. Such proximity to death and to other people's suffering would become even more familiar to her during her nursing years and the war. Indeed, by the time she came to face her own death she would claim it had lost some of its sting. As she told the vicar who visited her on the eve of her execution: "I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me."

But being witness to the suffering of others does not necessarily bring compassion. Repeated exposure to misery can just as easily lead to a hardening of the heart—desensitization, disengagement, and withdrawal—or an even less helpful mind-set that blames misfortune on its victims, as divine punishment for an unknown deed. And compassion, even when stirred, does not necessarily translate into action. Edith Cavell saw suffering, was deeply moved by it, and was prepared to do much to mitigate it. As a young woman she wrote again to the cousin to whom she had expressed her frustration at her father's long Sunday services and this time spoke of her desire to do more to relieve the pain she saw in others: "Being a governess is only temporary, but someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful. I don't know what it will be. I only know that it will be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt, and so unhappy."

From an early age, when confronted with unsatisfied need, Edith Cavell chose the course of action over inaction. An event in her youth, recalled by her siblings, is one of the first recorded instances of Edith's readiness to act in a lifetime devoted to duty. Her father's parish was not particularly wealthy, and the church, St. Mary's, could not afford to build a separate hall for the Sunday school. Edith, probably then a young teenager, took it upon herself to write to the Bishop of Norwich, without her parents' knowledge, explaining the situation and asking for his help. The Bishop replied to the effect that he would match whatever funding the parish could raise. So Edith set about using her significant drawing and painting skills to mass-produce greeting cards to sell to parishioners and around the village. Once she had raised enough money, she called upon the Bishop to keep his side of the bargain, and the church hall was built.

Edith remained at the vicarage until around the age of sixteen, when she left Swardeston to embark on her formal education, first in London, then near Bristol, then finally in Peterborough. By the time she completed her schooling and returned to Norfolk, she was twenty. She then took a post as a governess and worked for the same family for three years.

In 1888, when Edith was twenty-two, she inherited a small legacy that she used to travel to the Continent, primarily to Bavaria and Austria. In Bavaria she discovered the Bavaria Free Hospital and became a frequent visitor. An anonymous, and somewhat hagiographical, biography, written in 1915, records that those in the hospital referred to her as "The English Angel." She is also said to have given part of her inheritance to the hospital so that it could buy surgical instruments, specifically indicating how the money should be used—much to the annoyance of the chief doctor, who thought the decision should be left to him. It is possible that the connection with the Free Hospital was the beginning of Edith's interest in nursing. The 1915 biography also records that Edith Cavell became very fond of the German people during her stay and spoke of her admiration for their generosity and gentle manners.

After her travels Edith returned to England and to working as a governess. A turning point came in 1890 when she was twenty-five. On the recommendation of the principal of her former school, Edith was offered the opportunity to act as governess to the François family in Brussels. She accepted the position and remained in it for five years. Her time in Brussels appears to have been a happy one, and it laid the foundations for her return twelve years later to take charge of the Berkendael Institute. One of the François children in her charge recalled that Edith organized mock dinner parties, plays, and performances, taught them drawing and painting, and took them on long walks through the countryside. "It was an intelligent way of bringing up children," she said. But it was also during this period that Edith wrote to her cousin of her determination to find a way of doing something more useful for "helpless, hurt and unhappy" people.

In 1895, Edith received news that her father was seriously ill and she returned to Swardeston to tend to him. He made a full recovery, but Edith did not return to the François family or to working as a governess. Instead she applied to train as a nurse at the Fountains Fever Hospital in London. What led to her decision to change the direction of her life and train as a nurse at the age of thirty is not recorded. Full training would take many years, and she would be in her mid-thirties before she could fully practice. She would experience a fall in income, and the conditions of her training would be a stark contrast to her work as a governess, with exhausting hours in a far less comfortable environment, surrounded by injury, sickness, disease, and death. Biographers surmise that nursing her father through his illness inspired Edith to pursue nursing as the "something useful . . . for people" that she had longed for.

On her application form to train as a nurse she wrote: "I have had no hospital training nor any nursing engagement whatever"; nonetheless she was accepted and trained for seven months before applying for general nursing training at the London Hospital. Her formative years of general training were under the authority of its matron, Eva Lückes, who was for some time in correspondence with Florence Nightingale, and who strove to maintain the newly acquired professional status of the nursing profession. The intensity of the training and exacting demands fostered a bond between the probationers that Edith Cavell never forgot. In particular, she admired the dedication the matron inspired in her students and the high standards of discipline and care she demanded.


On Sale
May 5, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Hachette Books